Harry Styles turns 30: One Direction’s great survivor triumphs beyond music (2024)

“I’m sorry, by the way. I’m never going back now,” apologizes Harry Styles (Cheshire; United Kingdom, 1994) in his song Lights Up (2019). He meant it. The British artist has been one of the few stars able to rid themselves of the boy band curse, and has evolved into a more personal artistic phase, a transition that has resulted in his being crowned one of the most influential artists of the 21st century. The music industry’s great critics and icons have compared him with figures like John Lennon and Mick Jagger. But Styles’s multifaceted personality (he moonlights as an actor, model and business mogul) has allowed him to shine as a one-of-a-kind artist. One Direction’s beautiful boy turned 30 years old on February 1, and the expectations his public has regarding him and his career are many. In May, The Idea of You, starring Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway and inspired by Styles and the band that brought him to fame’s pinnacle, is scheduled for release.

Perhaps you’re wondering how this angel-faced boy, who snuck in his first appearance on a TV set at the age of 16, while he was still working on Saturdays at a bakery in his small town in northern England, has been able to rise to the upper echelons of show business. Styles grew up in a suburb of Manchester, ground zero for some of the most important British bands of the 1980s and ‘90s, including The Smiths and Oasis — the latter of whom broke up the same year that Styles was born. His parents were music lovers, and Styles’s father fed him a balanced diet of the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones and Queen, while his mother was a Shania Twain, Norah Jones and Savage Garden fan. “They’re all great songwriters,” Styles said in an interview with Variety. The melodies left a mark on his consciousness, and his early musical education has helped him to win three Grammy awards since he launched his solo career. Those honors have only contributed to his reputation as one of the greatest artists of the century. The British edition of Rolling Stone even referred to Styles as the Mick Jagger of our time, based on his gender-fluid megastar aura, and ability to move seamlessly from rock to soul to ballads with charm in excess.

Aside from these contemporary honors, it is impossible to understand Styles’s career without examining his One Direction era. At just 16 years old, he was the frontman for White Eskimo, a punk band that Styles formed with his classmates from Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School. The young singer could hardly have suspected that, just one year later, he would become one of the most recognized faces in music throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. His stratospheric rise took place alongside his group mates Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson, their fame having ignited during their time on The X Factor television program. In the United Kingdom, during the seven years the group was active, four of their songs and every single album they released hit number one on the charts, selling more than 200 million copies. “It was like the Beatles in the ‘60s. Even if you tend to think otherwise, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were a boy band because they fulfilled a fundamental requirement: a teenaged, and especially, female, fan base that swooned over every wink,” Craig Williams, a music promoter and journalists for outlets such as The Guardian, described One Direction to EL PAÍS in 2022.

In April 2023, Styles provided a clear answer when he was asked whether One Direction would ever get back together (the group announced its separation in 2015, but he still gets asked the question on a regular basis). “I fear that it’s not a yes or no question. I think I would never say never to that. If there was a time when we wanted to do it, I don’t see why we wouldn’t.” In fact, the boy band’s members have never wanted to publicly rule out the idea of the group’s reunion. But it wouldn’t be a reconciliation — according to Styles, there was never a falling out to begin with. “I think there’s a want to pit people against each other. And I think it’s never been about that for us. It’s about a next step in evolution. The fact that we’ve all achieved different things outside of the band says a lot about how hard we worked in it,” the artist told Variety. Be that as it may, the Brit has clearly become the most successful One Directioner in the wake of the group’s dissolution.

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His subsequent prominence has hardly come as a surprise, given that he was already the star in One Direction. His first solo song, Sign of the Times, took a while to arrive (it came out in April 2017), but it when it finally hit, it made a big entrance, climbing to the top spots on the sales charts. This was a promising start, and from the beginning, the artist signaled that his solo music would be closely linked to his own feelings and ideas. A certain maturity became noticeable in his albums. Years later, Styles said that the coronavirus pandemic shifted his outlook on his career: “I think it’s been pretty good for me to have a kind of stop, to look and think about what it actually means to be an artist, what it means to do what we do and why we do it. I lean into moments like this — moments of uncertainty.” His artistic evolution can heard on his latest albums Fine Line (2019) and Harry’s House (2022). Contemporary studio effects and trendy beat patterns rarely influence Styles’s artistic acumen. He likes to focus on feelings, his own and those of his fans, and to envision himself on the dance floor, rather than a stage. “People within [the industry] feel like they operate on a higher level of listening, and I like to make music from the point of being a fan of music,” the artist told Variety.

On his latest album, his most personal to date, Styles’s introspection makes use of the concept of a house as a metaphor for “the rooms of his mind.” He also wanted to reflect the important role that therapy has come to play in his personal life. “I thought it meant that you were broken. I wanted to be the one who could say I didn’t need it,” he told Better Homes and Gardens. But therapy has allowed him to “open up rooms in himself” of whose existence he wasn’t previously aware, whereas before he had a tendency to “emotionally coast […] I think that accepting living, being happy, hurting in the extremes, that is the most alive you can be. Losing it crying, losing it laughing — there’s no way, I don’t think, to feel more alive than that.” Harry’s House won Album of the Year at the 2023 Grammys, snatching the victory from both Adele and Beyoncé. The win was highly criticized. The bulk of the controversy didn’t swirl around the question of whether he had earned the award, but rather, on Styles’s acceptance speech, which was ferociously attacked for its perceived racism on social media: “This doesn’t happen to people like me very often and this is so, so nice. Thank you very much.” The words were considered a mis-step coming from a white man. In 10 years, only one Black artist has won in the category; Jon Batiste in 2022.

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If there is one thing that makes Styles unique, a quality that seems custom-tailored for this era’s listeners, it is that he is an iconoclastic icon. He completely rejects typical stereotypes of masculinity, breaks with imposed gender norms. And does it without breaking a sweat. The man’s habit of smashing such barriers has been unprecedented. In December 2020, he became the first man to appear solo on the cover of the U.S. edition of Vogue. It was a milestone in the history of fashion journalism, as Styles appeared wearing a voluminous baby blue dress paired with a black Gucci tuxedo jacket — the latter garment from a brand for which he has modeled on numerous occasions. He was definitively anointed as a fashion icon when all-powerful Vogue editor Anna Wintour named him one of the hosts of the 2019 Met Gala.

Last July, the artist put an end to a two-year tour that had traveled the world, with 173 concerts and multimillion dollar earnings, finally landing in Reggio Emilia, Italy. “It’s been the greatest experience of my entire life,” wrote the artist on social media — he has more than 48 million followers on Instagram alone. From the tour’s paychecks, he donated $6.5 million to more than 30 non-profits, a generous gesture to cap such a wildly successful ride. In addition, he announced plans to build his own arena in Manchester to “celebrate music,” a project that is scheduled to open its doors in April of this year. “It’s about bringing more music to Manchester, wanting to bring more artists there, to use this building as a reminder of why it’s such a great music city, not trying to wipe out other venues,” he said in an interview with the quintessential British business daily the Financial Times. “I think that Manchester deserves it. It feels like a full circle, a homecoming, to be able to do this and give this kind of support. I’m incredibly proud. Hopefully they’ll let me play there at some point.”

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But he’s also proven keen to explore beyond the world of music. In 2017, the year that he released his first album, Styles took a role as one of the protagonists of Dunkirk, a film by director Christopher Nolan, who is nominated for an Oscar this year for his work on Oppenheimer. In 2022, Styles walked red carpets as one of the stars of Don’t Worry Darling. In between the two, he became an entrepreneur as the owner of Pleasing, a unisex cosmetics brand. It celebrates “the multitude of unique identities in our community,” according to a press statement. “I’m blessed to have fans who are so supportive of me, who believe in freedom and who have created this safe space for each other. Pleasing is really for them,” he told Dazed.

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In addition to his talent and artistic ability, his romantic life has been in the media’s spotlight since the start of his career. It was then, when he was still a part of his iconic boy band, that Styles’s romance with singer Taylor Swift went public, grabbing the attention of, and creating massive neurosis among, the two’s massive fanbases. It seems unbelievable that, a full decade after the publication of those earth-shattering images of the couple, both are at the peak of their artistic careers. Another high-profile Styles coupling hit the headlines during the filming of Don’t Worry Darling, when he apparently felt a special connection with his director, Olivia Wilde. Their relationship came to a close at the end of 2022, after two years.

After a nearly 15-year career, Styles has yet to find a stage that doesn’t feel like home. The artist is now enjoying some downtime at his family villa in Tuscany, after more than two years of touring. But it is clear to his fans that not too much time will pass before their idol announces his next artistic undertaking. As One Direction’s chosen one likes to say, “I’m always writing.”

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Harry Styles turns 30: One Direction’s great survivor triumphs beyond music (2024)
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